Our Space Problem

Space, the final frontier …

Since the spectacular Apollo moon landing in 1969 we have lost our way when it comes to big projects for putting humans into space. Some let down was inevitable. After all, the moon landing was one of the greatest achievements in human history. It’s just awfully hard to top that. After the Apollo missions we built the space shuttle, which was impressive, but in the end it was pretty much a magnificent space-truck to move people and cargo into Earth’s low orbit. In terms of inspiration, the shuttle program was lacking compared to the feat of landing men on the moon and returning them safely to Earth.

We built some space stations too, first Skylab, and lately, in collaboration with other nations, the International Space Station or ISS. But these have been yawners and perhaps not worth the money spent. The average person is left wondering why we are spending billions of dollars to build and maintain these fragile habitats. There is just not much inspiring about them, and they haven’t mattered much for advancing science either. The ISS may cost over $100 billion before its final days, and one must wonder what better space exploration projects could have been funded in its place. Aboard the ISS there is no gravity, living quarters are cramped, you sleep floating in space – even using the toilet is comical and primitive. We are still stuck in the 1960s in many ways when it comes to putting human beings into space.

As the second decade of the 21st century rolls along – isn’t it time to expect something much grander for our human endeavors into space? Isn’t it time for something that will truly inspire us again while at the same time definitively giving humanity a sustainable, permanent presence in space?

If we are going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars putting humans into space, including visiting other celestial bodies like the moon and Mars, it’s time to get past the mentality of one-shot space missions. America is an affluent nation with 27% of the world’s GDP. We can afford to dream much bigger. Doing a one-shot mission to Mars makes no sense given its high cost and that all of the equipment used in the mission will be discarded or put into museums. A one-shot mission to Mars is really just a souped-up version of our first one-shot mission to the moon. Once the Mars feat is done, the party is over, just like it was soon over after we landed on the moon. So after a one-shot Mars mission we will be back to scratching our heads trying to figure out how humans will ever get firmly established in space. As incredible as it would be to see humans walking on the surface of Mars as part of a one-shot mission, we have to wonder if there is a better way to tackle the challenge of human space exploration.

So instead of a one-shot space project to get humans to Mars for a limited visit, we need to think in terms of a sustainable human presence in space. From this point of view, a mission to take humans to Mars would simply fit into our human-supporting infrastructure in space where humanity has a permanent presence. Thus we need a space strategy that will completely eclipse the Apollo-style programs of rocketing humans to other places as one-shot affairs.

So let’s think outside the box. What would be a much bolder vision for human space exploration? We need a profoundly different strategy. And in fact there is something entirely different to consider – and it’s sitting right in front of us – inspired by our science fiction. You might call it Visions of Enterprise.